Left Foot Charley
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Bryan Ulbrich of Left Foot Charley is defining Michigan wine and cider. The state’s first “urban winery,” Bryan owns no palatial estate. Instead he sources fruit from small, exceptional vineyard sites throughout Northern Michigan. His gift is transforming grapes into delicious wines that express purity of fruit and great, balanced acidity. While Bryan’s wines are leading the way to define terroir in Northern Michigan, his orchard-focused, low intervention cider philosophy is a revival of Michigan’s rich history in cider making.
Bryan Ulbrich moved from the Chicago suburbs to Traverse City in 1993 to craft Riesling. He spent 11 years at one of the area’s pioneer wineries, Peninsula Cellars on Old Mission Peninsula, learning all aspects of production. In 2004, a new vineyard owner called upon Bryan to help him save his Riesling crop from imminent disaster. From this, Ulbrich’s first batch of dry Riesling was born and so was Left Foot Charley.
Left Foot Charley is located in the former Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane in Traverse City, Michigan. The urban environment has served to bring terroir to the people. Bryan focuses on white wine varieties and heirloom apples. He approaches apples with the same reverence as grapes. Each variety, terroir, and vintage has an impact on the possible flavor outcome. It is his job to discover and release this potential.
Owning no vineyards himself, Bryan sources fruit from numerous small vineyards (1-6 acres in size) throughout Northern Michigan. He only works with excellent growers who take pride in their vineyard. The goal is to produce wines that display the range of aroma and flavor found among the glacially tilled hills of the region; lake effect, soil composition, vineyard aspect, and grower mentality all shape the flavors. The growers sell only to Left Foot Charley, and the commitments go beyond simple cash per ton arrangements. Through mutually established goals, their farms are defining terroir in the region. In the true nature of partnership, as these wines get discovered and demand for them increases, the growers will be paid a higher price for their grapes. As the winery grows and prospers, so do the farmers.
Apples are not a trendy fad in Michigan; they are a historic part of the economy and lifestyle. They grow throughout the state. Each orchard reflects a specific terroir through the varieties, growing methods, soil, and ripening conditions - just like grapes. Working with four local farms and one near Lansing, Bryan is able to source many heirloom varieties for his ciders: Jonathan, Ida Red, Empire, Spy, Macs, Greening, Golden Russet, Porter’s Perfection, Ashmead’s Kernel, Wickson, Red Harrelson, Brown Snout, Baldwin, Yarlington Mill, Dabinett, Benet Rouge, Esopous Spitzenberg, Winter Banana, Winesaps, Cortland, Harry Master’s Jersey, Chisel Jersey, Arkansas Black, and Otterson. The apple trees are on average about 20 years old. For regular apple consumption, most apple trees are ripped and replaced every 30 years. Bryan is hopeful that the rise in cider popularity will encourage farmers to keep older trees and help the MI cider industry better understand how the age of a tree can impact cider characteristics.